Actor/screenwriter Justin Theroux has garnered widespread acclaim for his starring role in the critically-acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers. From straight-edge punk to quirky pop and the folk song that defined his childhood, he skips across genres to share the songs that mean the most to him. The Leftovers finale airs on June 4. (Hosted by Liza Richardson)
Featured pictures courtesy of Larry Hirshowitz.
1. Joni Mitchell - "Chelsea Morning"
2. Minor Threat - "Good Guys (Don't Wear White)"
3. Jonathan Richman - "Hospital"
4. The Gun Club - "She's Like Heroin to Me"
5. Lou Reed - "Cremation (Ashes to Ashes)"
Liza Richardson: Hi I’m Liza Richardson from KCRW. I’m here with actor Justin Theroux - a star of the critically acclaimed HBO series The Leftovers, which I am lucky enough to be the music supervisor for. And today, we are here to talk about music, so we welcome Justin to our studios to share five songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Justin, welcome. What did you bring today?
Justin Theroux: The first song I chose was “Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell. And I chose it not because I love this song, I chose it because it was the first time I had sort of a sense-memory of a song. I was very young in the 70s when my mom got divorced and she was alone and she used to put on that record all time. I know she was doing it to cheer herself up, but it was doing the opposite for me in the household. And, to this day, when I hear it, it’s like hearing - I don’t know how to describe it - it just reminds me of horrible afternoons, the fall, divorce. It’s a wonderful song, obviously, but I find it almost disturbing.
And then in later years, talking to my father, he had the same reaction to that song because he was in Vietnam and he used to hear it on the army radio or whatever, and it just reminds him of being in Vietnam. So you know, it’s the first song I can remember sort of imprinting on me in a way that was,unfortunately, deeply uncomfortable, all respect to Joni Mitchell.
*Song: Joni Mitchell – Chelsea Morning*
Liza: Excellent. “Chelsea Morning” by Joni Mitchell. What’s the next song you brought?
Justin: My next choice is Minor Threat’s “Good Guys (Don’t Wear White)”.
Growing up in the 80s in D.C. was a fabulous time to be a fan of music. And Minor Threat is one of the many great D.C. punk bands who were the first someone-throwing-me-a-rope kind of band where I really felt like “Oh! There’s something out there - there’s a bigger world out there. It’s not all Steve Miller and Lynyrd Skynyrd and disco and all that.”
It just felt great to finally have some ownership of some music that I felt – you know, at that age you really lock onto the kind of music that you like that feels new and original and fresh. You really love it. And they were also sort of the first band that I sort of awoke to some political belief system and some moral belief system. I did my first tattoo on my ankle that was the straight-edge x, even though I was sort of on-and-off straight-edge. They just meant a lot to me, and continue to. I just adore them.
*Song: Minor Threat - Good Guys (Don’t Wear White)*
Liza: That’s Minor Threat: “Good Guys (Don’t Wear White).” What’s next?
Justin: The next one was a difficult one because this artist means a lot to me. This is Jonathan Richman, who played with a band called Modern Lovers. He was a very avant-garde New York Artist. He was a fantastic guitarist. He was a simple singer. But he was the first person to really touch me in a romantic way, saying a lot about love and recorded love, or love when it’s going great.
He had these incredible lines in his song that weren’t catchy lyrics. I mean, this song is about a woman getting out of the hospital. It’s not your average Britney Spears song. And he also sort of imbued a lot of his stuff with humor, and I really enjoyed all of his records. But Jonathan Richman was one of those gems that I sort of thought I was one of the only people that knew him, but of course millions did.
Liza: So this is “Hospital.” It’s by Jonathan Richman.
*Song: Jonathan Richman – Hospital*
Liza: So that’s “Hospital.” It’s by Jonathan Richman: the choice of our Guest DJ Justin Theroux. And you have a couple more, what else?
Justin: Gun Club, which is probably one of my all-time favorite bands. Very bluesy, delta punk, I guess? Obviously their roots were in blues. So, Gun Club was just one of those bands that – there were other bands like them that had this twangy, sometimes steel-guitar sound but were a little bit faster driving than your average blues song. And I just love them, and I love a lot of their subject matter.
Liza: Quick question: I know you’re a writer and an actor, obviously. Do you ever use music to get into character, to write, to get inspired, anything like that?
Justin: A lot of people will put in earbuds before a big scene or something. And they’ll sort of get into the zone, they’ll have a piece of music that they really love. I don’t like doing that, and I definitely don’t like doing it when I write because I feel like there’s a musicality to dialogue that is its own thing. That has its own pitch and temper and tenor. And that’s the thing that you’re really, when you’re acting and also when you’re writing, you’re really trying to push to the forefront. And I find, especially when I write, if I’m listening to something my dialogue might get a little punchier, might get a little slower, and I just prefer silence. So I really like silence when I’m getting ready for a scene.
Liza: Cool. This is The Gun Club with “She’s Like Heroin to Me.”
*Song: The Gun Club – She’s Like Heroin to Me*
Liza: So that’s The Gun Club, and you have one more. What’s the last song on your list today? Justin: “Cremation (Ashes to Ashes).” It’s a stunningly beautiful song about death, or just the vastness of death, or the terror of death. The singer of song is from one of my all-time favorite bands ever: The Velvet Underground.
But I forego all of his earlier stuff -- I could have put in a million Velvet Underground songs -- and opted for something later in his career. Even that, I had a schism with: when he went solo and did the New York record and started working with [John] Cale again a little bit. I kind of didn’t get him. I was like “what’s this weird stuff that he’s doing? I just want more Velvet Underground.” But he represents an artist that I think really evolved – and kept evolving, kept moving forward, creating new music. Eventually I sort of grew into his work. I grew up to it, which is something that happens with music a lot. You don’t understand an artist until you get closer to the age that they were creating it at.
Liza Richardson: Have you ever been able to meet any of your musical idols?
Justin: Lou Reed – we lived in the same neighborhood in New York. He was famous for being sort of a rattlesnake, he didn’t want fans. A friend of mine tells a really good story where Lou Reed was with his dog sitting on a stoop. And he was like “oh my god, there’s Lou Reed. I want to go say something, what should I say? I’ll probably just say ‘you mean a lot to me’.” So he’s sort of thinking and formulating what he’s going to say to his icon, and he gets about ten feet, and he says that Lou didn’t even look at him. He just held up his and went “don’t.” And I think he was just relieved to have that advice. There had been a couple times where, later in life, I had been in rooms with him, at art galleries. There was even a dinner that he was at with like ten people. I stood as far away as I possibly could, because if he had been mean to me, it might’ve ruined his whole entire canon for me. It’s that old “never meet your heroes.”
Liza Richardson: This is Lou Reed with “Cremation (Ashes to Ashes).”
*Song: Lou Reed - Cremation (Ashes to Ashes)*
Liza Richardson: That’s “Cremation (Ashes to Ashes)”, it’s by Lou Reed - the choice of our Guest DJ Justin Theroux. Thank you so much for joining us at KCRW.
Justin: Thanks for having me. Thank you.
Liza: To find the complete track listing and to find these songs online, go to KCRW.com/GuestDJProject, and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes.